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Thursday, September 17, 2015

What Happens When You Get Addicted?

Everybody thinks they know what addiction is or what it probably feels like. This is because addiction is typically described in language that is deceptively simple sounding. Everybody knows what it feels like to “need” something that isn’t good for them.

For example, people who decide to quit eating sugar often feel that need for sugar even though they know it isn’t good for them.
What many do not realize however, is that where science is concerned: the need of addiction isn’t just a metaphorical or existential need. It is literally a physical need. Here’s why.

What Do Drugs Do?

Everybody knows that drugs can wreak havoc on our bodies. Everybody knows that if you drink too much you’ll damage your liver and that if you smoke you increase your chances of developing lung cancer. What not everybody knows is that most of the changes that occur in our bodies when we are drinking or on drugs originate in our brains. Drug use inhibits our brains' control of our moods, mental functioning, communication ability and even our motor skills. All of those things change because drugs and alcohol change the way our brain processes stimuli. Specifically, taking drugs causes the brain stem, the cerebral cortex, and the limbic system to behave differently and, often, erratically.

A Normal Brain

A brain functions by sending and receiving millions of chemical and electrical signals. Those signals are passed from neuron to neuron in the brain with the aid of chemicals called neurotransmitters. A neurotransmitter carries a signal into a neuron’s receptor and, for lack of better term, plants it there for the neuron to process. Imagine that spark that happens when you put a plug very close to an outlet. There is a great breakdown of how signals are transmitted between neurons here.

A Brain on Drugs

Most drugs (and alcohol) have chemical components that cause the different parts of the brain to “misfire.” For example, marijuana has a chemical structure that is similar to that of a neurotransmitter. So, when those chemicals enter the brain, the brain thinks that it is receiving more signals than it actually is and because a drug’s chemical makeup does not behave in the same fashion as a neurotransmitter when it enters a neuron’s receptors, the brain can’t figure out how to process it. This is why drugs like marijuana and heroin have a slowing effect on the brain.

Other drugs, like cocaine, cause the brain to release more natural neurotransmitters while also preventing those neurotransmitters from being sent back to receive more messages (or being “recycled”) so the brain is constantly bombarded with more messages than it can process, which causes it to speed up--which is why drugs like cocaine or meth have a “hyping” effect.

Great So How Does Addiction Work

Our brains’ primary goal is to keep all of the chemicals flying around within it balanced out. So, as you keep sending manufactured neurotransmitters (and chemicals that act like neurotransmitters) to it, it will slow its own production of those neurotransmitters to keep everything even and balanced.

This is why, if you have been using drugs for a while and you suddenly stop, you have a hard time feeling normal. Your brain literally isn’t getting the chemicals it needs to function normally and it takes time for your brain to adjust to the change and re-start its own natural production. So, in this sense, your brain literally needs your drug of choice for you to continue functioning like a normal person. This is particularly problematic in adolescents. According to a blog post from hotelcaliforniabythesea.com, adolescents’ brains are still forming and introducing an addictive substance can cause irreparable damage.

Suddenly the character House seems a lot more sympathetic, doesn’t he?

What to do About Addiction

Many people, even the addicts themselves, assume that the best method for dealing with an addiction is to simply quit their drug of choice “cold turkey.”

Almost all of the time, this is a bad idea--especially when attempted alone. Because of how dependent upon a drug a person becomes, the detoxification process can be quite dangerous. It is always better to go through detox and withdrawal with the help of a trained professional. This is why so many people check into rehabilitation facilities to detox; rehab centers have trained medical professionals who can watch for and treat any detox side effects or problems.

It is important to seek treatment sooner rather than later. The sooner you can admit you have a problem the better chance you have of lasting recovery. And though it will take time for your brain to start functioning normally again, it is important to understand that it is possible.

This is a blog post by Nancy Evans.

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